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Engineers Are Using Self-Directed Learning to Take Control of Their Careers

Engineers Are Using Self-Directed Learning to Take Control of Their Careers

New learning experiences help make the complex simpler—they are flexible and convenient, so engineers can receive education where and when they need it.

“Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?”

This is a standard question in just about every job interview or performance evaluation. Managers use the question to measure an employee’s:

  • Compatibility with long-term business objectives
  • Level of ambition
  • Professional interests
  • Leadership style

But the truth is that most employees won’t achieve their stated goals without investing in personal and professional development.

This is especially true for mechanical engineers. The rapid and constant development of new technologies means success in engineering has always depended on learning new skills—and much of that learning takes place outside the workplace.

What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning (SDL) is a learning strategy in which individuals take the initiative to “identify their own learning needs, determine their own goals, find the appropriate resources, and direct their own study.”

Humans have always been self-directed learners. It’s what has ensured our survival. But over time, as discoveries in the arts and sciences increased, SDL’s role in skill development declined in direct correlation with an emphasis on formal training from institutions of higher education.

However, numerous factors have made companies more likely to value employees who have undertaken professional development courses on their own:

  • Increased digitization of every aspect of daily life
  • Seemingly weekly technological breakthroughs
  • The democratization of knowledge

SDL has evolved considerably over the years. No longer just pre-taped lectures and worksheets, modern SDL can be formal or informal and done via:

  • Livestream classes with student participation
  • Hybrid online/traditional courses
  • Small, participant-led groups
  • Mobile apps and websites
  • Mentor supervision

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and sites like Udemy and Coursera have made niche learning and specialization possible and affordable across many industries and skillsets.

Additionally, professional organizations like ASME have developed extensive course catalogs to help their members gain the skills needed to meet their career goals. ASME offers everything from that direct engineers through a sequence of courses to help build competency.

Impact of COVID-19 on self-directed learning

As with everything else, COVID-19 significantly impacted how, when, and where we learn---from Virtual classrooms to Self Study courses to curated Learning Paths

A recent study from TalentLMS, Training Journal, and Workable found that:

  • 43% of employers offered more remote upskilling initiatives during lockdown
  • 42% of employees pursued SDL programs after the COVID-19 outbreak
  • 21% of employees invested in learning skills they hoped would help with a promotion
  • Employees aged 18-44 are the most likely to pursue outside learning opportunities

Additionally, LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report also found that rapid skill-building at scale “has taken center stage and is essential to help organizations develop the skills necessary to thrive and innovate in the new world of work.”

When the rate of technological advancement and the fact that 65% of employers provide upskilling programs only on a case-by-case basis are combined with:

  • Increased numbers of employees engaging in SDL programs
  • Higher probability of young professionals actively seeking out SDL opportunities
  • A shortage of technically skilled workers

It makes sense that short, competency-based courses are gaining acceptance and recognition from employers. If participants can prove the effectiveness of SDL by consistently demonstrating improved proficiency, it’s reasonable to assume that in the future, at least some SDL certifications will be as valuable as traditional degrees.

How can SDL courses help my career?

SDL can deliver many benefits beyond the obvious (i.e., new skills and project readiness).

Almost 80% of employees say that SDL has boosted their confidence. Confident employees are more likely to take risks, volunteer, meeting productivity expectations, and display creative thinking. All critical activities for career growth.

And while advanced degrees have their place in career progression, SDL is much more flexible and affordable than even a part-time degree program. That can be extremely valuable to someone who doesn’t have the ability or desire to pause their career for more education.

Another advantage of SDL? Timeliness.

Because they have to jump through a lot of time-consuming bureaucratic hoops, traditional university courses often struggle to keep pace with advancements in engineering technology. That software you needed to learn to get up to speed with your additive manufacturing machinery? It could be out-of-date before you even start.

However, SDL courses don’t operate in the same restrictive environment.

This lack of oversight can lead to poor quality courses, but learners can capitalize on ground-breaking tech innovations when the course is from a reputable industry leader.

SDL can also offer professionals greater variety and specialization in terms of subject matter. Finally, the often hybrid in-person/online/small group nature of contemporary SDL courses presents useful networking opportunities.

How do I know what courses I should take?

With so many SDL options available, it can be overwhelming to know which skills to focus on.

Consider the following questions:

  1. What does my dream job look like? Do I have the skills needed to get that job?
  2. Is there a need at work that my team consistently can’t meet?
  3. Do we currently outsource functions that could/should be done internally?
  4. What certifications/skills does my manager have that I don’t?
  5. What technologies do I wish I worked with more?
  6. Does my industry have an emergent technology that not many people understand?

The answers to these questions can act as a guide for the types of courses and skills that will be the most valuable.

And keep in mind that soft skills can be just as important to learn as hard skills. Among employers that provide upskilling opportunities, 50% focus on both hard and soft skills, but a full 30% exclusively target soft skills.

Sometimes, a project management certification is as valuable as a programming one. Agile leadership skills can be as important as robotics experience, and writing can matter as much as welding.

Promote yourself with self-guided study

To get the most value from SDL work, it’s important to only work with established and industry-recognized groups. As the global leader of mechanical engineering codes and standards, ASME has a huge selection of cutting-edge courses and qualifications on everything from budgeting to boilers.

With live, on-demand, self-directed, and instructor-led guided study on technical and non-technical topics taught by experts with substantial real-world experience, ASME Learning and Development helps members at every career stage become the engineering leaders of the future.


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